What Happens When The President Interviews A Humble Author From Iowa

Barack Obama and Marilynne Robinson talked about fear in America today.
MANDEL NGAN via Getty Images

In her first book of collected essays, novelist, teacher and lecturer Marilynne Robinson wrote that, while she’s thankful for her academic career, she would’ve been just as happy pursuing something more humble. Humble as in teaching children to read, or raising children of her own. As the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Gilead, Robinson's career might be one of the farthest things from humble. But, she notes that her upbringing didn't exactly angle her towards a life of fame.

“I’m absolutely indebted to my origins, whatever they are, whatever that means,” Robinson recently said in a conversation with the President of the United States. “On the other hand, with all love and respect, my parents were not particularly bookish people.”

The president then praised the writer, who he says has “good sense along with sort of an overlay of books.”

In an unconventional interview published online yesterday on The New York Review of Books, the two discussed Robinson’s humble origins and how they’re not so at-odds with Barack Obama’s politics. The President noted, “And the thing I’ve been struggling with throughout my political career is how do you close the gap. There’s all this goodness and decency and common sense on the ground, and somehow it gets translated into rigid, dogmatic, often mean-spirited politics.”

The two continued to discuss the dissonance between religious thought and religious practice (Robinson didn’t reject the title of author and “theologian”), the state of education in America today (which Robinson characterizes as better than we often say), and, most notably, the lingering air of fear, which might be responsible for the recent, unsettling rash of violent acts across the country.

There’s perhaps no one more qualified to write about fear in America than Robinson, who related the feeling to many of the Protestant ethics underlying our country’s morality. She writes extensively about fear and Christianity in her latest essay collection, out this fall.

“Fear was very much -- is on my mind, because I think that the basis of democracy is the willingness to assume well about other people,” Robinson said. “When people begin to make these conspiracy theories and so on, that make it seem as if what is apparently good is in fact sinister, they never accept the argument that is made for a position that they don’t agree with.”

Robinson and Obama went on to discuss the concept of the “sinister other” -- the concept that, in the face of such speedy, globalization-induced change, people are prone to forming their own like-minded communities, closed to the beliefs of those who are different from them. The pair agrees that it’s a dark and dangerous breed of politics -- one that works against social progress.

This sentiment is echoed from Robinson's essay on fear, also published in The New York Review of Books. In it, she stresses that collective patriotism only functions well when we trust that our fellow citizens mean well.

She writes, "Why stockpile ammunition if the people over the horizon are no threat? If they would in fact grieve with your sorrows and help you through your troubles?"

To read the entire interview, visit The New York Review of Books.

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